For the last four-and-a-half years, I have worked in a design studio by the Thames in Chelsea. To reach it, with increasing frequency, I’ve walked through Brompton Cemetery on my way between Big Fish and Earl’s Court tube.
It’s been a civilizing, contemplative commute. Lottery money has poured in to the cemetery and a team of gardeners keeps the place neat and spruce. Still a working burial ground, there are occasional interments to add to the 200,000 people laid to rest in this ‘great garden of remembrance’. On a recent hot July morning, I stepped around two magnificent black horses being cooled with water buckets. Alongside was the ornate hearse ready for the later funeral.
Brompton is a far cry from the neglected and notorious spot it used to be, a menacing place I visited in the 1980s. On a grey winter’s day, my overwhelming impression then was that I had found the inspiration for CS Lewis’ Charn, the dying world described at the beginning of The Magician’s Nephew. Charn is a grimly desolate place. The two children, who feature as the protagonists, find themselves in a never-ending corridor of seemingly dead and petrified people sitting either side on chairs, unmoving and unseeing. At the very head of these long lines, they disturb a proud and cruel looking woman by sounding a bell. The wicked witch, as we come to know her, rises imperiously, a vision of awakened and evil intent (and, thanks to Pauline Baynes’ illustrations, in a setting that’s a doppelganger for the catacombs of Brompton Cemetery). The witch later sweeps into 18th Century London and creates mayhem before being transported to a new world at its birth. That is Narnia, where the Witch lurks as a super baddy to challenge all things good and Aslan-ish.
One can disappear into many rear-view reveries, walking through Brompton.
There are some very notable people there. Emmeline Pankhurst’s grave is never without fresh flowers and admirers. William Howard Russell, the greatest, as well as the first ever, war correspondent is buried off the beaten track. John Wisden, of cricket and Almanack fame, lies to one side of a quiet path. Near the back southern wall, Kit Lambert’s marble plaque is attached to that of his ancestors, a calm tableau not entirely in keeping with the complicated, restless man who brought The Who together. Bob Carlos Clarke, who took fantastically erotic photographs that enthralled the advertising and art worlds, is under a simple, bold stone in the south west corner. It marks his departure, tragically early at 55, when he jumped in front of a train.
Despite the odd and obvious stand-out gravestones like these, the overwhelming sense one has walking through the cemetery, from one end to the other, is how most of the stones are comfortably dull. Of the 200,000 or so lives commemorated, most have made do with a name, some dates and the simplest of expressions. There are plenty of ostentatious, flowery outpourings too, but the majority are similarly forgettable. While every person there will have had passions, achievements and histories in life, the details or individuality are simply lost in the telling, or lack of telling. (I use the observation as a metaphor for brands seeking attention from a disinterested audience strolling by. Londoners, according to a Guardian article from the summer of 2018, are exposed to 13,500 commercial messages a day. Their capacity to remember any is, on average, only one. One.)
The joy of Brompton, though, has been the endearing clutch of quirky individuals and rewarding encounters with animals. There are no end of grey squirrels. The place is home to an army of crows, who hop about in appropriately black plumage, a seething convention of noisy undertakers. With them come a small number of eccentric bird feeders, who upend whole loaves of Hovis from cavernous shopping bags. Usually women of a certain, senior vintage, they scowl at the runners and dog walkers who pound the pathways. This summer, a fox lair right at the centre became something of a focus as one adult raised two cubs with extraordinary care. I learned this from both watching them and also from a lady in a motorised wheelchair. She put down frankfurters for the foxes most evenings, cooingly happy with her pampered charges. Other characters waited patiently until the coast was clear and then took up stations, simple watching or photographing the animals’ antics from just a few feet away.
My favourite spot of all is just under the two pine trees (the photo at the top). I chose to walk under them more often than not. They became, to me, the Touching Trees, a duo that appear, in fanciful imagination, to be holding hands. Standing underneath them awakened all sorts of positive memories. The pine needles made me think of the big ‘swing tree’ at my childhood home of Little Downham, where after innocent hours of swinging or being swung on a wooden seat suspended from a great bough, we later – and more mischievously – packed the needles into rolled up rhododendron leaves and smoked them furiously. From the age of 7 to 13, I was away at St Neot’s, a curious and enchanting prep school that was stuck, a fossil of perfectly preserved 19th Century tradition marooned in the middle of Bagshot sands, near Wokingham. The best growing plants on the sands are bracken and pine trees, and the school was bulwarked by 70 acres of both. Pine resin, pine bark and pine needles are all immediate calling cards that take me straight back to the years of running madly, but very happily, through ‘The Rough’ as the woods were called.
More indulgently still, there was something about the Touching Trees that struck me as parental. The duo appeared tightly bonded, whatever the season, holding hands in happy communion. The sense of protection afforded by their quiet, swishing response to whatever complications were seething through my mind never failed to make the moment calmer.
Under the Touching Trees is candidate for my favourite place, although there are many. I shall miss walking through Brompton more than I can say.